Marketing Mondays: Who is a "Professional Artist"?

Some years ago, my mother had plans for me to marry a “nice Italian doctor” and live next door to her with my five kids. When it appeared her dreams would never be fulfilled, she revised them. “I hope you’ll marry a nice Italian man.” As time passed, she adjusted her expectations: “A nice man,” she asked for. And then, "A man." Over time it became, "You don’t have to get married right away, as long as you’re serious.”  Followed by, "Have you ever considered having children on your own?"

When she finally accepted my not-in-this-lifetime position about a husband or a husband-like equivalent, and the beyond-remote possibility of offspring, she started in with the idea of my settling down with “a nice woman.”  And now, given the new marriage equality laws in New York State and Massachusetts it’s, “Do you think you’d ever want to get married?"

Some version of this scenario has been mined by comics for years. With good timing, it's truly funny. But that's not why I mention it. I do so because revised definitions were part of  a recent conversation with a friend. He and I were talking about the efforts of a mutual friend, whom he dismissed with, “He’s not really a professional artist.”

I’ll spare you the details of the discussion, because it was the comment that interested me. Thinking blog post, I asked: “What exactly is a professional artist?” 
“Well,” said my buddy, "it’s an artist who makes his living through the sale of his work." Eyeing me he added, "Or her work.”

My buddy is a tenured professor. While he’s gallery represented and his exhibitions always carry red dots, I know for a fact that it’s his teaching salary that pays the big bills—that and the fact that his partner pulls in a nice salary in a financial industry job. I reminded him of that. 
He revised his definition: “It’s a gallery-represented artist who shows and sells his or her work.”
“What if the artist doesn’t make enough to live on, especially now? Is the gallery-represented artist any less professional if a partner or spouse to assumes a portion of the expenses?” 
“Well, no,”  said my friend. “If he’s gallery represented.” 

That last comment unleashed a cascade of questions:
. "What if the artist works full time and isn’t gallery represented but regularly applies for and and receives art grants and residencies?
. What if the work is not commercially viable but critically considered, as in academic galleries and non-profits where sales are not usually part of the agenda?
. Is there a difference between the artist who works every day in the studio and sells through a gallery and the artist who does the same thing and sells through open studios?

“Well, uh, I don’t know,” replied my buddy.  

I don't know either, but it felt like one of those conversations with my mother and her endless revisions about what she wanted for me in a partner.  

Is it just income that makes one a professional artist?  What about professional achievement? Given that the majority of artists do not support themselves fully on the sale of their art—even some of those big names have tenured teaching positions or real estate holdings or family money or a financially supportive spouse, or eventually retirement benefits if they've been putting into a retirement account—I think this is a question worth exploring. 

What do YOU think is a good definition of a "professional artist"?

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annell4 said...

I am a working artist, who has been at it for the last 50 years. I work in the studio most every day, "unless there is a death." It takes time, and you must provide it to yourself.

Through the years, I have been represented by different galleries, sometimes my gallery has sold well, and sometimes not. I don't think it was ever enough to live on. I have been lucky to have other income, which has allowed me to do creatively as I want. To allow me to work, and keep working, keep growing as an artist.

As a woman, I think we have always had to define for ourselves "whatever"... instead of allowing the male dominated society define for us.

I think an artist should take a professional attitude to their work. And what is that? I think working regularly, and seeking ways to share this work. I have always said, I have felt successful, because I am able to work in the studio. Each artist has to define for themselves what success is.

I don't remember, maybe it was Isac Dennison who said, "If the artist seeks something outside the studio, he will suffer." I agree it cannot be the only reason... who wants to suffer all the time.

The professional has to develop thick skin, and listen to his own voice. After all who knows better than him? Who is at work in the studio? Create that body of work, and then find way to share your work.

* said...

Putting aside questions of income (maybe I'm defining "real artist" rather than "professional artist")how about this, defining it through negatives:

- not a dilettante
- not a hobbyist
- not a student
- not ignorant of other & past art
- not a former artist
- not a non-artist


Tamar said...

A provocative question, Joanne, to which their are many answers.

The word 'professional' strikes me as not particularly useful--I'd prefer working artist or committed artist. "Professional" implies some kind of external accreditation, or that there should be a measure of financial success to make the claim. How much (if any) income one derives from the sale of the work should not be a primary consideration. Sales ebb and flow, with or without gallery representation. There are a host of reasons why the work may or may not sell. Is someone less than committed to their work if they choose NOT to make it available for sale--not necessarily.

But on the essential point, I think that to be considered a serious, working artist (or writer, choreographer, musician...) includes several things:
putting in the time, year after year after year; a body of work that demonstrates both consistency and evolution; and an openness to engage with others about both your own work and the work of others. I feel that a willingness to put the work out in public (in an exhibit, performance, reading) marks the change from a serious hobbyist to a working artist.

I've deliberately steered away from whether or not the artist has something meaningful to say, or says it particularly well or not, because that is a judgement call better left to the eyes and ears of the audience.

I look forward to reading other responses to this post.

David Novak said...

Professional artist.

The IRS considers an artist to be a business when sales = profits. When sales do not = profits, the IRS considers you a hobbyist. Google "professional" and "professional artist" and enjoy the arguments. Using IRS criteria, in an art world where art=commodity, then making money by selling your art makes you a professional.?!@ Then, breaking even, or loosing money, makes you an amateur??? a looser???? a hobbyist???? a what?????

I have been in the art making game for over 50 years. I consider myself a maker. Over these years I have acquired all the correct advanced degrees, taught at the university level, had successful gallery arrangements, successful museum exhibitions, and successful disengagements/re-engagements with the commodity oriented showbiz side of art making. Am I a professional? I dunno. I don't care. In my life it doesn't make any difference. I continue to make something in my studio on a daily basis. From the beginning I never wanted money to be any form of determining factor on what I made. This makes me happy; past, present, and future!

pam farrell said...

As I read through the list of "What if" questions that sought to define "professional artist," I found comparisons to my own situation unavoidable. I cannot, and do not want to attempt to answer this for anyone other than myself. Looking back, I find it has been a process I've engaged in over the years, usually during a professional road bump or time of transition.

making my living through the sale of my work: nope. not even close. sales are inconsistent, nothing i can count on.

gallery representation: nope. although until recently, i was represented by a gallery--same one for about 7 years--minimal exhibit opportunities and low-to-no sales (along with some unprofessional stuff I won't bore you with) necessitated severing ties

grants and residencies: nope. many applications, no nice letter saying "congratulations!"

critical vs commercial: um...ok, maybe. but not solely. i have several bodies of work that fit in both spheres

sales through open studio vs gallery: no. (not even a jokey response.)

I am in my studio when i am not busy in my other professional practice/career as a psychotherapist. Some days I see clients and then go to the studio.

Professional achievement: bingo! my resume is reflective of as full a commitment as possible to an art practice and career as i can make while still meeting other responsibilities, obligations, and commitments. I have sold work in and out of the gallery, shown in invitational, curated, juried, and small diy shows, and been a juror and curator. I have a large commission pending for a major healthcare facility, and have another curatorial project on the horizon. For whatever it's worth, i maintain a blog, website, and carry business cards that represent my practice and career, and i pay quarterly taxes.

So, by your friend's limited criteria, no. I am not a professional artist. Oh well...

But by my own definition, I am a professional artist, and it's taken me quite some time to get here/there. I do what I have to in order to maintain my art practice. i have quite a lot at stake, and too much invested to allow myself to be defined by others, so I'm not going down easy.

thanks for another interesting post...

Franklin said...

A professional artist is an artist who can execute the capacities of his profession when called upon to do so. Our profession requires us to do many things in the course of making art and getting it out in front of other people. The exact list varies from artist to artist, but whatever is on that list, the professional can make it happen with integrity, quality, and minimum inconvenience to all concerned.

The representation, residencies, fellowships and so on are the by-products of professional life, not professionalism itself. This is why it's so hard to make a list. If you're a professional gallery artist, you get a roomful of high-quality, presentation-ready work made and deliver it on the day before you hang. If you're a professional fair artist, you put your jewelry out on an attractive table with your cards, and get your work and display furniture in and out of the event with no damage and no trash left behind. Professionalism is a working attitude, and a professional artist is an artist who can act accordingly.

Richard Frumess said...

To me, "professional artist" is an objective term for which the only standard is meaningless; i.e., that the artist gets paid for her/his work.

More important to me is "serious artist." That is a very subjective term. I judge it on how well an artist uses materials, but even more how well that person conveys a visual perception and how constantly over the years he or she has done that. Sometimes you can see that in one exhibit without having known the artist before. But, again, it's subjective.

Eva said...

I agree with Franklin. There are a lot of things required of a professional artist, depending on the day or stage. And even having a day job might be one of them.

Many artists from the outside seem very successful and professional, but if it's about money, well, they already have it. They can put it into the studio, into the work, into the social arena, buy the ads and whatever else. If you boil it down though, they may not actually be making money off the work - but they don't need to. I'm not putting this down, just saying that it's not all about the profit actually made from art sales. That's a slippery slope.

One thing which I require of a real artist is work and lots of it. Lately I've been curating and going into studios. I am surprised at how many artists say they can get the work together once the show is scheduled. In other words, they don't work seriously just to work seriously, because they have to, because that's who they are. They only work towards a show. I'm not so sure that's a real artist.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure how useful the notion of 'professional' is, in a world where there are so many different possible permutations.

That said, I do see 2 relevant distinctions:

1- is this person a plain old, regular "artist?" I mean this purely in the authentic notion, ie Someone who is here on this planet to make artwork, and defines themselves as such. No other criteria needed.

2 - a "successful" artist. This is someone whose main source of income is from his work, meaning they can somehow live on ONLY making their work. No outside jobs, no teaching gigs, no working spouse needed. An artist is really only "successful" in my book when they dont have to do some "other" job. All the other people are just lying to themselves - or not "really" successful!

Of course, #1 does not require #2. However, any supposed artist claiming he does not "need" and/ or "want" #2 is not truly serious in my book. A "real" artist IHMO should not desire to do anything "other" than their work.

Anonymous said...

This may be less a complicated question than it seems: A professional artist is someone for whom their art is first and foremost in their lives. Everything else they do, see and think about is subordinate to the essential truths and visions that drives them to create art in response to living. Income, accreditation, education, representation, reputation, and critical significance all change with the passage of time and context, but the professional artist strives to make every work count towards the eternal struggle with fidelity to their vision. It is a matter of self identification, and no one else can define it for you.

lucy mink said...

I like that you said that Eva about artists only working towards a show, i am not sure of that either. I love painting and will continue to do so every day of my life, shows or not, it really does not matter at this point. It would help with the bills if my son was in a longer day of school so I could add in a part time job with my studio time and mother stuff, but thats for next year.

great post Joanne, thanks said...

I consider my self a professional painter because it is my profession. It's about executing my profession at every level. I pay attention to my craftsmanship, I work towards my artistic vision everyday both as a practice and as an expression. I conduct my transactions, contracted obligations and responsibilities with integrity. I present my work with pride. This is how I define my profession for myself but not for others artists. So I am on board with Franklin.

With that said here is a question: if a physician did not make all his /her money treating patients or performing medical services, would his/ her proffession be called into question?

Anonymous said...

The question of who's an artist and what's art isn't as importatnt to me as what function it serves for the world beyond the artist. I always guage good art by its affect and ability to influence. In a sesne I could care less about the qualifications for being a "professional". I'm far more interested in the question..."what art and artists really matter to teh world beyond teh self."

Janine Whitling said...

Does it really matter? Do we have to define everything to validate it? How about we return to being okey with just being ourselves creating art? Why do we have to limit ourselves to an ideal to define ourselves? I am Janine and I make art!

Anonymous said...

If you have a business card then you must be a professional artist. You can't argue with a business card.

Anonymous said...

Good answers from many good artists. My answer to "Who is a Professional Artist?" It's about how you perceive yourself.

I submit the following for consideration.

Be an Outsider
From "The Book of Life, by J. Krishnamurti:

I do not know if you have observed what an enormous part the intellect plays in our life. The newspapers, the magazines, everything about us is cultivating reason. Not that I am against reason. On the contrary, one must have the capacity to reason very clearly, sharply. But if you observe you find that the intellect is everlastingly analyzing why we belong or do not belong, why one must be an outsider to find reality, and so on. We have learned the process of analyzing ourselves. So there is the intellect with its capacity to inquire, to analyze, to reason and come to conclusions; and there is feeling, pure- feeling, which is always being interrupted, colored by the intellect. And when the intellect interferes with pure feeling, out of this interference grows a mediocre mind. On the one hand we have intellect, with its capacity to reason based upon its likes and dislikes, upon its conditioning, upon its experience and knowledge; and on the other, we have feeling, which is corrupted by society, by fear. And will these two reveal what is true? Or is there only perception, and nothing else? - J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life

Nancy Natale said...

I asked this same question in my blog about this time last year, Joanne.

To me, the money from sales is nice, but I think it's more about attitude and commitment. It's also about working even if you're not selling because you just feel you have to and/or want to and/or are personally compelled to so that you retain your sanity.

In the past few years, I have seen a change in my attitude toward my work. I used to work toward deadlines or projects and if I didn't have something coming up, I wouldn't feel the need to work with as much devotion. Although it's still true that I relax a little if I don't have to have work ready for a certain show or something, I am now making work all the time in the studio, planning work in my head, buying materials ahead so I can make things without waiting, always looking at the world as fodder for my art. Perhaps it is my age, but I am conscious that I only have a limited time here to make this stuff and, damn, I want to make it just to see what it turns out to be in the transmission from my head to my hands.

I agree with Franklin, Eva, Anonymous and others that it's not only about making and selling the work; it's also about presenting yourself professionally with attention to details of finishing your work carefully with hangers and good-looking backs, making your documents look good and read well, being on time with what you have promised to do, taking what used to be called "a workman-like" pride in what you do. Sneer and snark at this bourgeois attitude all you want (and I don't mean you, Joanne), but I think it's what separates the professionals from the hobbyists. Every work we make represents us as artists and as persons. Why bother doing it at all if we're not doing our best.

harold hollingsworth said...

Professional is a loaded front. I make my living as an artist, solely, and make no apologies, it took a long time to get here. Do I show, yes, do I sell, yes, does this make me a professional? I don't think so. I'm a rank lower tier amateur at best. I would consider that since whether I make a living at this or not, that I would still continue to make work part of the conversation. I think making work is the most important thing to consider. It's part of who I am, but if you want a professional, I feel like I might somehow let you down, you being the general public. I have specific people who are patrons, like what I make, and want it, but for me to feel like the general public would want, or get what I do, I think that would fall short from the mountain I occupy. Good question that you have thrust out, got me off the bench...

ben said...

In answering who is a "professional" artist, another question inevitably comes up...what is an artist? Don't mean to open up another can of worms, but in many ways this question may be even more important in the sense that it may gauge criteria of work...or does it? Of course, the question that then comes after this is, "what is art?", but we'll save that for another day.

ben said...

In answering who is a "professional" artist, another question inevitably comes up...what is an artist? Don't mean to open up another can of worms, but in many ways this question may be even more important in the sense that it may gauge criteria of work...or does it? Of course, the question that then comes after this is, "what is art?", but we'll save that for another day.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Koons

Kim Matthews said...

While it's not a perfect analogy, many graphic designers and other graphics industry workers have recognized a need to develop and articulate a set of professional standards, as computer technology has enabled any idiot who knows how to turn on a PC to hang out a shingle and call him or herself a "graphic designer." This influx of unskilled workers, along with clients who don't seem to understand the value of good design, has created a real crisis in the industry. Maybe it's time for professional fine artists to consider organizing and developing some sort of industry standards as well.

Anonymous said...

Love the mother conversation - reminded me of my (ex) mother-in-law. Not long after I had yet another miscarriage she commented that my husband would be less depressed if only I'd hurry up and have a baby...

I know it goes against the trend in that people think of a professional artist in terms of sales, $, galleries etc - but I prefer to think in terms of their attitude to their art.
Are they professional in the way they paint, present, deal with people & galleries, etc? Is their mindset that of someone acting as a professional practitioner of their craft?

Tim McFarlane said...

I have never liked the term "professional artist". I am a serious working artist and have considered myself as such since leaving high school. At that time, I had a very serious and committed attitude towards to the work, first and foremost. I painted, and painted, and painted, went back to school, graduated, continued painting and continue to do so today.

Along the way, I developed the skills necessary to present myself and my work in a professional manner but I still consider myself a serious working artist first. I have a "day job" that affords me the time and flexibility to be in the studio as much as possible, I have gallery representation, and try to get my work seen as much as possible. The promise of sales nor shows has never been the motivating factor behind what I do in the studio. Even when both things have happened, money was never the motivating factor that pure love of making work and challenging myself creatively has been.


No one seems to have mentioned that having a creative way of using materials to produce a visual experience might be a definition of an artist, professional or not. Doesn't it boil down to a level of craftsmanship, commitment, and originality?

Joanne Mattera said...


The definition of an "artist" is not in question. Indeed, you have defined it quite well.

It's the "professonal" part that's more difficult. I'm not sure there's one definite answer. There are professional artists who have never made a cent from their work but have been showing for decades in non-profits, co-op galleries, academic galleries and even museums, funded by grants or the income from another job. And, of course, there are producers of mundane objects and images who are rolling in dough.

Unknown said...

I agree with Franklin. Professionalism is a working attitude. And I think education (whether you are self taught or attended some sort of school) and experience help you shape this attitude, or work ethic.

It's about having the knowledge and the tools to deliver your product. It's not just knowing how to paint a certain subject, but also knowing how to deal with the clients to ensure their satisfaction (and your own) all along the process.

Example: Not all pro football players win the Superbowl, or even play all the games, but all of them go to practice every week. Because it is their profession. It doesn't matter if they play, it doesn't matter if they win. They show up on time and do the work. They get prepared. They practice and practice, every play and every variation, over and over again. So, when the time comes, hopefully they will know what to do. Whether it's because they've done it before, or because they've done similar things for so long they know how to assess the situation, a professional will know how to react so he/she can deliver the goods.

If you add this work ethic (knowledge/experience) to a burning desire of materializing your artistic vision through producing the most honest and best quality art work that you possibly can, I'd say that you a professional artist.

Emily Rose said...

The term "professional artist" is completely subjective. Each person has their own personal definition and uses it to look at others to determine if they meet the same standards.

I've always been a artist, a creative, business minded, ever since I can remember. And it was encouragement and support and environment that fostered my passions since childhood. Does that make me professional? Doing art my entire life...

What matters is that I continue to pursue my passions and not judge myself or others based on their own personal experience. Its different for each person. It's all subjective.

Michelle Hunter said...

I would say a professional artist is someone who is able to make a living off of it. "Profession" to me is an activity you receive compensation for whether or not you attended school or training for that topic. I have a day job in marketing and my degrees are in marketing so I would say I'm a marketing professional since I've earned enough income through that to live on. Yet even if I studied marketing but make my living doing people's taxes, then I would call myself a tax professional. Once I earn sufficient income as an artist, I would consider myself a professional artist.

Behaving professionally is different and important to do to Annell's point. Getting into the mindset that you can and will be able to earn your living from your art is important.

-Michelle Hunter

Unknown said...

Beginning to render after a number of years, I longed to replace income from the typical office work with income earned as an artist. I wanted to be a professional. But strangely, that felt small and like a compromise. Certainly, earning money as an artist, supporting the needs and wants of my family and working primarily on my art is a noble goal to aspire to, but along this path is something greater: simply put, sharing the light of creativity and inspiration. When allow myself to lay aside the Dollar Signs I'm set free to share my work with those who may never purchase my work. That feels "professional," like a healer or community leader's role.

laura Warburton said...

interesting and engaging comments....
Artist, physician, lawyer, athlete... some roles have specific society professional designation, some don't. To me "professional" is more an attitude than a specific criteria , a respectful internal agreement to be more than others expect of you.

Maria Brophy said...

I've always believed that a "professional" anything is one that does it for a living (whatever "it" is - be it artist, surfer, etc.)

An artist is an artist regardless of how many paintings they sell or if they have another job to pay the bills.

A professional artist is one who creates art for a living.

I found a nice, simple definition of "Professionnal" by Webster:

"participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs (a professional golfer)"

That sums it up nicely. You can be a golfer if you golf, but if you are paid to golf, then you are a professional golfer.

Jobs Brisbane said...

For me professional artist are the people who do their arts by heart. Its doesn't matter if it will be sold or not as long he/she can express his/her self through his/her art.

Jobs Brisbane

Lola said...

Being a "professional artist" is an attitude and lifestyle. It has nothing to do with a side gig or financial accomplishments. Professionalism, in any field, is how you carry yourself. It is about how you conduct business and how you present yourself.
I am an artist and I consider myself to be a professional as well. I spend many hours in my studio but I also have another career because I have many passions. Does this make me less of an artist? I do not think so.

I sell my art, I show my art but I also own a business that isn't necessarily related. When I meet someone.. anyone.. anywhere and I introduce myself I say "Hi! I'm ______. I am a studio artist as well as the owner of ______."

I do not think that the amount of money you make has anything to do with if you are a professional or not. The amount of money you make from being an artist answers a very different question.

Success is defined by what you want to achieve in life not by how much money you make doing what you love.

Bilal said...

There is a nice collective information about a Art as Profession. Art as a profession is nice job.

Photobook Girl said...

This was truly amusing to read. But who wants to get married when you create beautiful art all the time? Tell your mother that!

Laura Moriarty said...

I think the term 'professional' best applies to what I would describe as the unemotional side of being an artist. It's not about being in the studio, grappling with ideas and materials. It has to do with presentation and marketing, engagement and qualification. It's how I clean myself and my work up and present it to the world - whether I am selling it or just posting it on facebook. Artists of any kind can choose to be professional or unprofessional in any number of ways. Just a few examples include being dependable, reputable, aware of standards in the field, being organized and being able to take criticism and rejection.